Slap bang in the middle of Sabah state – nestled amidst emerald green rolling hills, and dominated by the breath-taking Mount Kinabalu, Sabah Tea Gardens are fast gaining importance not only as a tourist attraction, but also as a resort in their own right.
With major new extensions planned in terms of accommodation over the next two years, it has become a “not to be missed” stop-off point in any trans-Sabah itinerary. We asked General Manager, Ismail Martin Kong, to tell us a little more about the resort and its current accommodation.
Sabah Tea Gardens are the state’s only tea plantation, beckoning visitors to indulge in our beautiful surroundings, away from the hustle and bustle of city life. It’s a sprawling plantation of 1,200 acres, surrounded by pristine rainforests with cool mountain air. During your stay at our tea resort, you wake up to a background of Mount Kinabalu, accompanied by the beautiful morning sunrise and misty dews. If you love nature and enjoy the company of green surroundings, we welcome you to Sabah Tea Resort. We offer several different types of accommodation, namely Longhouses, Cottages, Camp Grounds and Longhouses.
For people who want to feel what it is like to stay in a traditional and cultural setting in Sabah, they can opt for the rustic Longhouses to experience the traditional Malaysian Borneo rainforest lifestyle. The Sabah Tea Longhouse is an adaptation of the Rungus Longhouse design. It is clean, and comfortable. Displayed on its walls are exhibits of seven ethnic cultures of Sabah, namely: Bajau, Rungus, Kadazandusun, Murut, Lundayeh, Lotud and Melayu Brunei. Sabah Tea cottages on the other hand provide visitors with all the comforts of home in a traditional setting. Named after early colonial settlers and explorers from United Kingdom, Australia, and America, these cottages are fully equipped to cater to the modern lifestyle deep within the wilds of Borneo.
What’s the background to the plantation?
The Sabah Tea plantation was officiated on February 19, 1984 by our then Prime Minister, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. In 1997, an Ipoh based company, Yee Lee Corporation Berhad acquired the entire shares from Sabah Tea Sdn Bhd and Desa Tea Sdn Bhd after the government decided to privatise the company.
Located 2,272 feet above sea level, our harvests are 100% pesticide free, as insects are drawn towards the 130 million-year-old rainforest surrounding the plantation. This results in Sabah Tea being pure and untouched. Another advantage of Sabah Tea Gardens’ location in the cool foothills of Mount Kinabalu is that it allows every harvest at the Sabah Tea plantations to turn out such that it is a Spring-like harvest, which is regarded as the best harvest quality.
What’s your background?
I have been here 12 years now. I had been based for 22 years in the USA, from the age of 22 to 44, selling software products, and at the end, selling rotisserie chicken in the farmer’s market in Silicon Valley; now to selling tourism product here in Sabah. The skill-sets are the same. It’s selling something, and the way you communicate is the same. Half my life was overseas, and half here, which is why since I have been here, my orientation has always been towards western tourists. This is a “nature” destination, so we are not really catering to Chinese and Korean tourists. Being a marketing person, I look at what the customer really wants. Take our longhouse, for example. While it is rustic, the first thing I do is to take people to see the modern toilet facilities. The cleanliness aspect is important. I am trying to leverage what I know from staying so many years overseas, from the mind-set of the Americans.
When you came here, what was it like?
It was very quiet. The first problem people mentioned was that the place is two and a half hours from the city. Nobody, except people who were crazy about tea, would drive so far to see a tea plantation. I therefore repositioned it, saying “We are half-way between Kota Kinabalu and Sandakan”. You can go to Kundasang and Kinabalu park, come here at the end of the day and stay here. Next morning, breakfast, factory tour, and then on to Sandakan. So, you are ahead of the curve. We are 45 minutes from the top destination in the whole of Sabah – Mount Kinabalu. It was just a case of repositioning ourselves.
You have been working on underlining the colonial aspects…
Indeed, the cottages have white picket fences. A tea plantation is colonial… it’s English. So, let’s put some English elements in it. We try to tie everything into the colonial history of Borneo. When you come here, it’s educational. For example, there’s war history, with the most important memory being the infamous Death March. They passed through this very place. People also learn about the rainforest and its flora and fauna.
Where do your visitors come from?
My number one market is Australia. Number two is European, especially UK. Australians and Singaporeans love milder tea. And the Sabah tea is a very mild variety. In general, we have an increasing number of groups coming from overseas. Raleigh International in the UK every year sends seven to ten groups – two or three hundred students. They stay here, network with the local primary schools, doing community service. We try to be responsible citizens in that sense, and to make a difference.
What else are you doing like that?
I am starting to talk to Elisa Panjang, the girl doing research on Pangolins. They are thinking about starting a Pangolin conservation initiative in Sabah, much like the Sun Bear centre in Sepilok. I told them if this place is suitable we could do something like that. We are trying to not just do tourism, but do tourism with some responsibility. Almost all my staff are local Dusuns. We do a lot of CSR projects as well.
Since you arrived here, what has changed?
The plantation itself has not changed that much. On the tourism side, we used to only have five staff members, and now we have over 40.
We are expanding quite a bit in terms of adding new accommodation. We will be expanding the parking area. We are just finishing a new activity centre, where people will be able to do Batik painting and so on. When people come there, they can buy a package in which they are given local Dusun costumes to wear during their time at the centre. They will feel like they are really part of the local culture!
We have been in the process of upgrading some of the existing cottages, to be even more “colonial”. And we are planning in the next couple of years to build eight new hillside cottages, probably with a total of 16 rooms.
Tea is a real “theme” … You have some interesting tea-inspired items on your menu in the restaurant as well…
Yes. We have a number of tea-infused items on the menu: tea scones, tea waffles, tea pancakes, tea ice cream, tea soup. We have even made tea fettucine and noodles. Then we have the Borneo cuisine – based on the organic local native vegetables. When you come here, you get a taste of Borneo, in terms of the food, experience, and the view of Mount Kinabalu. And when you go home, you can take home the Sabah Tea, a little piece of Sabah.
How is tourism evolving here?
During the past three to five years, the nature of tourism in Sabah has been changing. People want to experiment on their own. They don’t want guided tours so much anymore. We have a lot of jungle trekking, but people want to do it on their own, so we built some trails for them to walk on. We have also found that people increasingly want photo opportunities. People want to take selfies showing they have been here, so we have been making everything “visual”. Tourists like to explore on their own. They like to drive around and get lost and then find a way back. In a way, that’s part of the journey. Even Chinese travellers are starting to travel individually.
How do you communicate externally?
We are doing a lot on social media. Our entire menu is on facebook. When I first did that, all my hotelier friends said “You’re crazy… everybody can see your prices!”, and I replied, “What is there to stop them coming here and snapping pictures themselves?” In this way, I can control the nice, high resolution images. Sometimes people come here and sit down and they already know what to order, because they’ve seen the menu and they know what to expect. Good news travels very fast through social media, but bad news also travels fast, so you have to be careful. We have to communicate with different kinds of travellers in different ways. Chinese travellers are very tech savvy, and use WeChat for everything. If you want to communicate with elderly Australian tourists, that of course would never work! We therefore need to develop different individual strategies. It’s a transitional stage.
Do you have staff specialised in social media?
We are outsourcing a small company that helps us with that, but I do a lot of it myself. I still do all the posting.
What percentage of your bookings come through the internet?
About 50%. The rest comes through Sabah Tourism, Tourism Malaysia, and the Tour Operators. From time to time we work through wholesalers, but most of the time we work through tour agents in town.
Sabah Tea Gardens with Mount Kinabalu in background – view from cottage
Do you have incentives for Tour Operators?
We give them agent prices, and then they can mark-up – it depends how they want to package. Most of the time, they include Sabah Tea one of the destinations as part of a state tour. Initially when I came here, my goal or vision was for this place to become a “must visit” destination for the people coming to the Mount Kinabalu “tourism corridor”. In the past two years, we have achieved that, so the business plan I am working on now is that we want to be a top five tourism player in Sabah. The advantage for me is that I have a product – I have tea – and I have tourism. The tourism side has always been in a kind of “supporting role” to the product. When they started the factory tour, it was basically to explain to people how we make tea without pesticides – about the goodness of the team: more of a soft sell. So, while tourism started in a supporting role, now we are becoming a destination, less dependent on the tea itself. The owners came a couple of months ago, and they really want to expand. They are talking about an agro-destination with fruits and all kind of things. We are getting to critical mass. We’re even looking at installing a zip-line. There are a lot of things that keep me awake at night.
You have developed a new package called “Journey of Tea”. Tell us a little more about this.
Basically, with this package, when you come here, we teach you everything about tea. In fact, we just had two guys who went to Taiwan to learn how to teach this as well. I used to have a tea master from the UK – our tea consultant. He is aged over 80. He used to be in Sri Lanka, but he got kicked out when the government nationalised the tea plantations there. He taught me to make tea by hand. We teach people how to make Oolong tea by hand in the traditional way, then we show them how it is done on a commercial basis, using a machine. Then we show them what white tea is. It is actually green tea – it’s a gimmick. You know how white tea came about? They were in China, and early in the morning it was misty in the highlands, and the dew made the leaves – from a distance – look whitish. So, they call it white tea, but when it is processed, it’s done the same way as for green tea. A lot of people also talk about the health benefits of green tea as opposed to black tea. It’s not necessarily true. It depends how it is processed as to whether it becomes black tea – fully fermented, oxidised and roasted. Green tea isn’t: the chemical process is stopped. Basically, it’s just like salad or vegetables. If you eat it fresh, you get 100% of the nutrients. If you cook it, you only have 80-90% of the nutrients. But the nutrients are still there. It’s the same leaf from the same plant. So, the health benefits of green tea are also in black tea as well, but people don’t know.
What are the three key selling points of this place?
The environment – the sense of the scenery here, especially when you watch the sun rise on Mount Kinabalu, with the fresh air, right in the middle of Sabah. Number two is the food, which is something very different. The third thing is that most of the staff are very genuine. It’s not rehearsed. What you see is what you get. In general, I think that’s Sabah’s selling point as well.
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